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Queens of the Cosmic Timewarp

Nick Ryan meets the Sisterhood of Karn, London's famous gay Dr Who society.


There is a room, reached at the top of a winding set of stairs, at the back of the King's Arms in Soho. It is frequently inhabited by groups of young, white, professional men, and they can be found arguing the merits of pipe smoking, biking or real ale - indeed they can be found discussing almost any number of topics, for this room plays host to gay social groups from across the capital.

To this confined space, every fortnight, comes the Sisterhood of Karn. Around 8pm on a hot, sultry July evening, the bar starts filling with acolytes. They sit quietly in a corner, backs to the wall, a band of non-descript, pale-faced, pleasant looking young men. Their only distinguishing mark is that some of them display a black badge with a pink triangle, surmounted by an old fashioned police box.

"...the film starts with the regeneration scene, because the seventh actor has simply got too old and worn out" someone is saying, a thin, moustachioed fellow wearing a beige summer suit and smoking a cigar. He is the leader, the founder and an architect by profession. He continues: "They've never explained how it works and I'm going to for the first time - using a fusion of recessive gene combination and accelerated tissue generation." He admits to having a science background.

In fact, his name is Tom Porter and he shares with the group one common interest - Dr Who. He set up the Sisterhood in January of this year, calling it Strictly No Anoraks, a name which was swiftly changed to the Sisterhood of Karn. These were, as one member puts it, "a bunch of telepathic women in the Brain of Morbius who try and mess up peoples' lives". Most simply agree that the name has a certain pretentious resonance.

Porter explains the creation: "I had met gay Dr Who fans over a number of years, and I often thought this was strange that so many of the fans were gay, and it occurred to me maybe there was room for a group. I knew there were lots of groups meeting here in particular - beards meet beards, chubbies meet chubbies, blue heads meet blue heads, gay pipe smokers, this sort of thing - so I rang up Capital Gay, The Pink Paper and Boyz magazine and put a little note in the What's On section. I turned up alone, not really knowing what to expect." Fifteen others appeared. Around 30 men, and one woman, now meet every fortnight in the King's Arms to discuss the Doctor.

But what is the link between being gay and liking Dr Who? "That's a very good question" says David North, who's father used to be tour manager of Led Zeppelin: "Not many people seem to be sure, except that most of the Dr Who fans that I know are actually gay." Peter Masters, a printer, adds: "You can get very involved in Dr Who and start talking about alientation and society and escapism involved in it. It's the perfect escapism when you're growing up gay, to go away and whizz from it all." Several people mention that the series has been highly camp (reflected in the sets), has had "quite a few nice men in it", and unlike other science fiction mediums, is not overtly heterosexual. In addition, the Doctor doesn't appear to judge anyone (not gay, at least). There has been one other gay science fiction society in the past, the Galaxians, but as one member of the Sisterhood puts it "it was fairly dull." There are plans, apparently, for a gay Blake's 7 society.

Porter believes that "gay people are more in touch with their childhood than straight people - they don't have to go through the processes of marriage, mortgages, kids. However old we are, we don't feel the need, or have to, cast off our childhood. We don't feel ashamed to have our teddy bear, except instead of a teddy bear, we have a Dalek."

Porter, who's first Dr Who memory is of a Dalek coming out of the River Thames in 1964/5, is also the eighth reincarnation of that most eminent of Timelords.

"I thought it might be fun to muddy the waters a little bit, for no better reason than mischief," he coyly admits. However, this seems no small task, for the video film in which he appears as the Doctor (an amateur production currently being filmed by the Sisterhood in the Docklands and on Hampstead Heath) is a four part epic entitled The Resurrection of the Cybermen. It has taken three months to write the script (a UNIT story - United Nations Intelligence Taskforce - replete with the Brigadier) and its budget "is zero, or slightly less, so within those parameters, we've got to put something together." An editing suite has been secured at Elstree Studios, as have three cybermen suits, and two members are putting together a Tardis "but they're having a bit of a problem with the interdimensional engineering".

The majority of the Sisterhood seem involved with this project. They also pursue their interest to other varying degrees - collecting videos of the series, writing scripts, buying old Dr Who magazines, acquiring costumes and sets at auctions (a cyberman costume, converted from an RAF flying suit, costs 500), marching in Pride and publishing a fanzine, Cottage Under Siege. Porter even has "a few Daleks around the place."

This strength of feeling can be measured in the nostalgia for the older series, and affection reserved for certain actors. For example, there are excited whispers as a middle aged gentleman wanders in during the evening - he played Davros' chief henchman, Nyder, in Genesis of the Daleks.

There is a vitreolic side to this nostalgia as well - series producer Johnathon Turner is vilified by many in the Sisterhood. "I think he ruined the programme and turned it into a pastiche of itself," says Porter, referring to the introduction of special guests, such as Ken Dodd, Hale & Pace and Nicholas Parsons in the later series. The last Doctor, Sylvester McCoy "simply couldn't pack the range of emotions that the Doctor required." There is also a certain amount of trepidation about Steven Spielberg buying the rights to the character. 'Fen', the only woman in the meeting and a self-confessed "dyke", worries about this. But she believes overall that science fiction "can be a feminist utopia".

Alistair Andrews, an actor, sums up the feeling in the group: "It's rare for a weekend to pass without watching Dr Who. It's a mainstay of my life." Peter Masters adds: "It really does give you a perspective on life, in a serious way. The everyday banal sense of reality doesn't impinge too much."

This article originally appeared in The Independent © August 1994

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